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by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker, September 2007
400 pages
$25.00 CDN
ISBN: 1846550955

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Iceland's notoriously unstable geology produces some unusual effects. This time, a large lake is mysteriously draining away and is thus the focus of a scientific survey. So it is that a government hydrologist with a fierce hangover is out at Lake Kleifarvatn despite her headache to check on whether the water level is continuing to drop. It is, and as it does, a skeleton emerges from what would once have been deep water, a hole in its skull and a rusty bit of Russian surveillance equipment tied to it by a rope.

Clearly, the crime is decades old and the police team, headed up by Inspector Erlendur, is under no particular pressure to solve it. They have their own distractions in any event. Elinborg is flogging her newly-published cookery book, a man whose wife has just been killed in a road accident is pestering Sigurdur Óli by phone for some unspecified existential answer that Sigurdur is hardly able to supply, and Erlendur's dire children are behaving badly as ever.

Iceland, however, does not run to many murders and those that do occur are normally rapidly solved because the murderer never leaves the scene of the crime, either simply passed out cold from the drink or waiting haplessly beside the victim for the cops to arrive. This ancient crime is not, therefore, pushed quietly to the back burner, but investigated thoroughly, since the detectives do not have a lot to occupy their time.

That it concerns the reappearance of a person long disappeared makes it particularly interesting to Erlendur as well, since he is still haunted by the tragedy of his childhood, when he, his brother, and his father were caught out in a storm, and only he and his father survived. The body of the brother was never recovered and, though he denies the connection, both his choice of career and preferred recreational reading reflect this central mystery of his own life.

From the point of view of the crime fiction author, a lack of serious crime might seem to present a bit of a handicap, but it provides Arnaldur Indridason with the opportunity to use the mystery as a vehicle to investigate Iceland's past. In the earlier SILENCE OF THE GRAVE, he took us back to the Second World War, when Iceland's strategic geographical position catapulted the country into the 20th century.

Here, we revisit the immediate post-war period, when the Soviet Union was consolidating its grip on Eastern Europe and Iceland was seen as a kind of enormous land-locked battleship conveniently moored between Europe and North America and thus of intense interest to both the US and the USSR.

Though Iceland firmly cemented its ties with the West by joining NATO and hosting a large US military base, evidently some Icelanders, at least, imagined a different future for their country and pinned their hopes on what they believed to be a rosy socialist state emerging in East Germany. A number went abroad, most for the first time ever, to attend university at Leipzig, to help build socialism in Germany and to be trained in revolution for when they went back home again.

Predictably, the experience was grimly disappointing. Most of the students went back to Iceland saddened and disillusioned. The body exposed on Kleifarvatn's lakebed dates back to those days and its reappearance stirs up long-buried memories and ancient sadnesses.

Throughout, Indridason sustains a tone of melancholy, evoking and mourning lives lost or unfulfilled, dreams diminished, possibilities checked. At the end, Erlendur stands on the shore of the lake that is now slowly filling up again and, a bit like Matthew Arnold on another beach, tries to make some sense of it all. His conclusion is a bleak one for a detective – that perhaps it is better not to try to solve mysteries at all.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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